Excerpt: You’ve Got Grave Issues by Nilufar Sharipova

The Literary Man

Rostislav Illarionovich Buning, the magnificent pedagogue and English literature expert, has died. This literary man was the kind of bon vivant you can’t find anymore. He was always dressed to the nines: a silk scarf around his neck, a flower in his buttonhole… and his manners! They just don’t make gentlemen like that these days. He’d open the door for people, and let others go in before him, and never sat down in the presence of ladies without their permission. Rostislav Illarionovich treated all women, whom he referred to solely as “the fair sex,” “the young mistress,” or “madam,” with reverence. He saw only what was beautiful in each one. And how he fell in love! With taste, of course, in the literary fashion: with the obligatory sleepless nights, suffering, and a notebook of freshly-penned poems. He accumulated enough for a couple of books. And his loves did not blossom in vain, not at all: as a man of exceptional decency, Rostislav Illarionovich believed that love must result in marriage. Thus the section of his passport designating “marital status” featured seven stamps.

That last year, the retired Rostislav Illarionovich had been called in to replace a literature teacher in the pedagogical institute who had inconveniently taken ill. Buning was perfectly willing to step in. Goes without saying that he missed those young, inspired faces—especially the female ones, which absorbed everything he said with indescribable joy. Rostislav Illarionovich experienced surges of boldness at times like that. He’d be talking about Shakespeare while his imagination went off on its own, picturing various episodes. That’s the way it was this time, too. The little brunette in the third row was getting really very agitated indeed. She was all but holding her breath as she listened to him. And his imagination didn’t take long to step in. Buning could see himself walking along the embankment with his beautiful Julietta (he’d already come up with a name for the lovely student).

He’s reciting poetry for her. She listens, with bowed head. Here they are at the entrance to her building, and his lips grace her slim hand. Julietta is moved, and flustered. Impulsively she reaches up to kiss Buning on the cheek, but she misses… Embarrassed, she turns and runs away, up the stairs. Oh, how Rostislav Illarionovich’s heart pounded at the scene! And then the school bell rang the end of class.

Katya Pestrova found out that Professor Buning had died from the bulletin board in the department office. How sad! Then and there, she decided to go pay her respects to the teacher. Because of Samuel Beckett, if nothing else. With the exception of Katya herself, Rostislav Illarionovich had been the only other person to understand and appreciate the Irish poet so deeply.

The woman who opened the door of apartment eighteen was Rosalinda Valeryanovna Buning, Rostislav Illarionovich’s seventh and last official passion. “Paying your respects, my dear?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she gestured an invitation for Katya to go into the sitting room. A coffin rested on a table in the middle of an enormous, high-ceilinged room. As soon as Katya entered, the sparse assortment of visitors gathered in a corner stepped forward, as though on command. Rosalinda Valeryanovna, who’d assumed a position nearby, watched Katya carefully, as though waiting for her to do something. Katya fumbled desperately for something to say, remembering what was appropriate at such moments. “My condolences. I can tell you that we will miss him.” The last few words died in Katya’s throat. “You asked if you could kiss him?” Rosalinda Valeryanovna repeated. Only now did Katya notice the hearing aid sticking out of the widow’s ear. Madame Buning surveyed the group that had gone quiet in the corner with what appeared to be a victorious gaze. “Of course you can.”

Katya hadn’t exactly planned on kissing a dead man, but had no clue how to go about telling Rosalinda Valeryanovna that she’d misheard her. Well, nothing for it. The student squeezed her eyes shut and quickly pecked Rostislav Illarionovich’s cold cheek.

The rain that had been pouring down since morning stopped abruptly, and the sun peered in to apartment eighteen. It seemed to Katya, the brunette from the third row, that smiling radiantly at her from behind a cloud was none other than professor Rostislav Illarionovich Buning, renowned English literature expert.

 

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Makar

There are doctors, musicians, and carpenters with God-given talent. God made them that way. And Father Makar (Yegor Semyonovich Malkov in the world, before the priesthood) had the God-given talent of being a priest. Of course, according to the law, all priests are supposed to be that way as their God-given nature. But laws don’t always work on the earth… some servants of God have devilish talents…

As soon as Father Makar turns his clear, ever-so-clear blue eyes on you, you start to feel so good, it’s like you just gulped a lungful of fresh air. There was something unusual in his gaze, for all the world as though the holy father knew some special secrets that others wot not of. Many felt better from just that gaze alone. They’d come in, light a candle, look the priest in the eyes, and go away comforted. But the ones who came to him for confession, why, those folks returned from church changed people. Not for us to understand what he said or did to them; after all, confession is one of the holy mysteries…

Somebody decided to do a news segment about the church. They had to write a request to the Municipal Cemetery Department, since the church was on its property, and to the church itself. Permission was quickly granted. A huge delegation composed of both the film crew and all the top departmental management flooded the church. It was a big event, since television didn’t set foot on cemetery territory all that often. Nadezhda Stepanovna Koltsova, the head of the personnel department, also came, to make sure that the personnel behaved.

They hadn’t even had a chance to get a good look around before the cameraman shouted “Gosha? Gosha, is that you?” loud enough for the whole church to hear it. He left his camera in Nadezhda Stepanovna’s care and rushed over to the altar, where Father Makar was standing. Much to Mme. Koltsova’s regret, she was unable to hear what the priest and the cameraman talked about, but she was able to be tortured by curiosity. A very mysterious person indeed, that holy father.

“Do you know each other?” Nadezhda Stepanovna asked, unable to restrain herself, once the cameraman had finally resumed his position behind the camera. “Yes. That’s Goshka… Yegor Malkov. We were in school together. Afterward I studied theater, but he went to the Bauman Engineering Institute. When the borders were opened, Goshka got a grant and went to Cambridge. He’s a leading scientist, he studied quantum physics and made huge discoveries. We read the papers and kept track of his success. But then Yegor disappeared. And now here he is… in church…” the cameraman mumbled, talking now more to himself than to Nadezhda Stepanovna.

“From physics to the priesthood?!” she pronounced, amazed. “So there is a God.” Nadezhda Stepanovna, formerly the chair of the Party Committee, didn’t even realize that her right hand had described a kind of arc or circle and was, in fact, clumsily making the sign of the cross over her broad bosom.

 

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Tosya Ivanova

Arkady Konkin would never have willingly told anyone why he went to work at the Municipal Cemetery Department. As it always did in such cases, Nadezhda Stepanovna Koltsova’s usual X-ray vision malfunctioned: the head of the personnel department always grew overly maternal and sentimental with men between twenty and twenty-five years of age. “Oh dear, now where on earth can I put him… young, underfed, such slender fingers…” she thought. She decided the flower shop of Cemetery Number One would be a good home for him. Working for department head Katerina Ivanovna Tishkina would be warm, comfortable, and filling, almost as good as being under the wing of Koltsova herself. As for Konkin, he didn’t care a whit where he worked, as long as it was close to the cemetery. Arkady Konkin wanted to be a writer, and where else but the cemetery could he come into contact with so many different people and fates? The extreme brevity of available information—all he had was a portrait, name, and birth and death date—wasn’t a problem. Konkin had a good imagination. Besides, sometimes an epitaph on a gravestone could say more than the longest biography.

That cloudy day, you couldn’t pry Tishkina away from the window with a crowbar: twenty years she’d been working there, and she’d never seen a funeral procession like this one. More and more people kept walking past, the majority of them uniformed military. “Oh my goodness, look, there’s a general. And there’s another one… and another one! I didn’t even know we had that many!” Tishkina was all but pointing out the window at them.

“That one’s a colonel, and that one’s a lieutenant-colonel. There’s only been one general so far,” Konkin indulged in a politically-incorrect correction of his boss.

“Yes, yes, that’s right, you’re right, Arkasha. My, but it is nice to talk with an educated person.” Katerina Ivanovna loved men and indulged them.

“But whose funeral is it? They’re carrying wreaths, so they had to’ve gotten them from us. Let’s just have us a little look at what we wrote on their ribbons…” Katerina Stepanovna started flipping eagerly through the pages of the job book. “Ah, here we are. From servicemen. “Rest in Peace, Tosya. Forever with us. The Rifle Regiment.” “Rest in Peace, Tosya Ivanova. Thank you for our sons’ lives. From the Mothers of Soldiers.” But who is this Tosya Ivanova? Not a general’s wife, that’s for certain, otherwise they’d’ve used her first name and patronymic, or at least her full name, Antonina. But all we have here is Tosya. She must’ve been very young… maybe a kitchen maid?” Tishkina mused aloud.

“You mean an army cook,” said Arkady, promptly correcting her again.

Katerina Ivanovna pronounced her verdict without paying any attention to Konkin’s commentary. “She was a spy.”

It wasn’t done to argue with the department head, and besides, Tishkina could top anyone with her power of deduction. Even Arkady couldn’t come up with anything better. He assumed a determined air and strode rapidly out of the store. Katerina Ivanovna didn’t try to stop him. She knew where her young assistant was headed. Not so long ago she’d’ve also raced off to find out more, but not anymore: now she occupied a position of authority.

Arkady Konkin caught up to the funeral procession once everyone had reached the plot. He kept a respectful distance. The soldiers mourned the way they knew best: silently, with bowed heads. Here and there someone wiped away a tear. Just one of them, still a young man, sobbed uncontrollably. He fell on the coffin and wouldn’t let it be lowered into the grave. “A fiancé, or a husband,” Arkady thought, the idea of it gripping his heart disagreeably. The casket was closed and there were no speeches, so Arkady returned to the store still in the dark.

There was absolutely no doubt in his mind that a gravestone had been ordered for Tosya Ivanova, but he was too embarrassed to stop into the workshop and see. So he started going every day to the section where Tosya had been buried. At first he just looked over from a distance, to see whether the gravestone was there yet, but then he lost all inhibition. He’d buy flowers in his own flower shop, make himself up a little bouquet, and head out to the grave, where he’d sit on a little bench nearby and start up a conversation.

Konkin could tell that Tosya liked the attention. She’d already given him some signs, like the daisy that bloomed out of nowhere, or the little piece of fluff that came smoothly to rest on his nose. Ivanov (Arkady was certain that this was the name of the young man who had sobbed so hard at the funeral) also visited Tosya. He brought no flowers. He just wept bitterly and drank. Arkady could barely tolerate these occasions. By now it seemed strange to him that there could’ve been another man in Tosya’s life.

Wednesday morning, Konkin saw that something about Tosya’s grave had changed. A black marble headstone radiated newness in the sun’s early light. Arkady had already admitted to himself that he was afraid of this day. What if Tosya turned out to be completely different than he’d imagined? Not as pretty, not as slender, eyes not as expressive? Then he scolded himself. Could anyone who saved somebody else’s life not be beautiful?

First Konkin hurried toward the plot, then he froze to the spot. The first thing he noticed was the large inscription, “You saved our lives. You brought us back home. To the best friend in a fight, from your teammate Yevgeny Ivanov.” Then Arkady saw two intelligent eyes looking out at him from the portrait of Tosya Ivanova, a German shepherd who had saved hundreds of Soviet soldiers from mines in Afghanistan.

You’ve Got Grave Issues
Nilufar Sharipova, Anne O. Fisher (Trans.)

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